Bowmont Forest

To the east of Eckford lies the Bowmont Forest, formerly Bowmont Moor. This used to be a racecourse.

The grandstand was near the cottages on the northern side. The then Duke of Roxburghe gave the use of the present site at Berry Moss as an alternative racecourse. Planting of the area started in 1816. The original idea was not so much to grow a forest but to find work for the people of Kelso. Between 1816 and 1820 about 350 acres were planted with one and a quarter million trees. About three quarters of these were deciduous and of these, in 1966, only about ten were left standing.

Nurseries for growing trees were opened about 1865 and in 1886 the first sawmill was started and cottages built. This saw mill has been going ever since. About 1905 a further 100 acres of marginal land were planted making a total forested area of about 450 acres which is now mainly coniferous.

The bulk of the area has been cut over once and is now carrying its second generation tree crop.

In March, 1927 a huge gale felled about 50 acres.

In 1930, a thinning programme was laid down in the spruce area of the forest. By 1966 this had been treated and measured at intervals of five years since 1930 and had become one of the most interesting experiments of its kind in Scotland. Forestry experts from all over the world have visited the forest.

In 1966 there was still one working draught horse in the Bowmont Forest, the only one left in the district.

On the night of January 16th 1993 there was a terrible gale and many of the huge old pine trees were blown down.

In October1998, forest trails were set out with signposts for the general public to walk in the woods.

Here is an account of the life of a boy in the area in the early 1950s written by the son of the then head forester.

“The Mackays arrived at Bowmont Forest in July 1951 when father took up his, for that time, very important job as Head Forester to the Duke of Roxburghe. The staff consisted of 30 men divided into three sections - sawmill, maintenance and felling. There was also a joiner who spent his entire time making timber gates for the farms.

It should be remembered that the estate, mostly arable, extended to 70,000 acres and was almost self- sufficient in fencing and building materials.

When we went to the forest, our house had no electricity and no means of heating other than fires in every room, including bedrooms. The sawmill cottages had no sanitation. The occupants were obliged to resort to a stinking ‘easement’ pit in the nearby wood; the smell in the summer was quite indescribable and to my city-born mother almost unbelievable. That no-one complained or thought it primitive left her numb with horror.

This state of affairs ended with a million pound upgrading programme in 1954,during which the estate provided proper sanitation including the miracle of bathrooms in every cottage and farm dwelling whether rented or not. I remember my father, white with fury, explaining to a labourer that he certainly could not continue using the toilet pits and that he would ‘bloody well’ get used to the new WC provided for his use in his cottage. I can scarcely believe that at 56 I can clearly remember such conditions and absurd reverse thinking.

The Duke in those days was Robert Innes-Ker, a formidable autocrat of uncertain temper, high intelligence and an enormous capacity for ‘Hunting Squire’ whisky which was specially blended for him by the now defunct Ballantyne’s of St Boswells. I recall in the early days the Duke took a close, if somewhat ill-informed, interest in the woodlands. On one memorable occasion my father, who was after all a professional manager, fell out with His Grace in spectacular fashion and amid much highly charged and colourful shouting. He came home and advised my mother that a move could well be on the cards. We spent a very tense week but nothing was ever said and the incident was only referred to obliquely some years later when the Duke rather huffily reminded my father that nothing good ever came from disagreements. He treated other managers abominably but never again shouted at my father. Towards my mother he displayed unfailing courtesy, particularly at shooting time when he and his friends took over our front room for the day of the ‘Forest Drive’. Mother was always ceremoniously thanked and presented with a huge box of hand made chocolates. Ordinary people never saw such luxuries, I can still taste the lemon creams.

School was at Eckford and the presiding dragon was a certain (name removed by request)*. She was much given to smacking but was an excellent teacher. I failed to benefit as I had by this time (10) come to realise that I knew everything and needed no further education, a presumption that cost me dear in the years immediately after going to secondary school.

Social life for children comprised quite wonderful parties in the village hall at Christmas, Hallowe’en etc. There was a social divide; no-one would think of inviting a head forester’s son to a farm workers’ party. This was something I never understood but no one apart from me seemed to find it odd or unusual. It just was the way of things.

The minister was (name removed by request)* whom I now realise had a split personality. He was on one hand the most entrancing storyteller, especially of ghost stories. On the other his sermons induced in young and old an intense boredom which was almost physical.

I remember making myself sick on Sunday mornings so as to be excused this torture but then I had to do without my roast beef (always roast beef) dinner in consequence.

As the fifties gave way to the sixties, mechanisation and the lure of higher wages in the towns emptied the farm rows, the church was merged with Ancrum and Crailing and the school closed. By the time I left home in 1963, the change was almost complete and what had been a vibrant community had to all intents and purposes disappeared. It was that sudden and complete.

It is easy to be excessively sentimental about the past but I feel privileged to have such a clear memory of a society which is as much history as the Victorian era. The freezing houses, the ungritted roads, the frequent and often prolonged power cuts, helping father mend the telephone line, (no -one ever phoned or called ‘faults’!) and excitement unbounded, the tradition of pig killing. Hardened as I am by 10 years in the police force, I now shudder in horror and shame at having enjoyed the last moments of so many helpless and trusting animals.”

* The webmaster has received requests for these names to be removed. The editor would like to draw readers' attention to the fact that Mr Mackay's story is written from the perspective of a small boy and not that of an adult.